Friday, February 10, 2012

Innovation and Self-Deception

Pondering “The Hazards of Confidence” (excerpts below) gave me flashbacks. We often think we’re helping cross-culturally, but we’re not meeting felt needs. Or we’re rushing to conclusions about the helpfulness of an innovation, when a different (usually simpler) innovation is needed.

In India, I remember a group of Westerners teaching a sewing class to some ladies from the slums. It was advanced sewing and teaching how to make a specific item that would never sell in India. And then they gave electric sewing machines to the vocational school. The feedback about the training was positive – the ladies appeared attentive and appreciative, and produced a reasonable quality garment. The guests told themselves they’d succeeded and the future was bright.

The reality was the Indian ladies were trying to respect the visitors so answered “yes” to all questions, knew that electricity outages were common and preferred pedal-powered sewing machines, and didn’t see a need to improve the quality of the garments. A class on basic sewing techniques and gift of different sewing machines would have been more beneficial for everyone.

Books like “The Logic Of Failure: Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations” by Dorner and “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Kahneman (author of article below) help us analyze self-deception and overconfidence. This is especially important when we apply a new or established concept or invention to a new situation (in other words, innovation). But there’s an added dimension of difficulty when your feedback comes through interpreters or even from English-speakers with a different value system. If I’ve learned one thing from living overseas: ask the wrong question and you’ll always get the wrong answer. But even more, if you ask the right question to the wrong person you’ll get the wrong answer. Asking great questions to appropriate people, collecting valid feedback, and stepping back to evaluate the felt needs (not just the obvious needs) of communities is challenging – and crucial.

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“When a compelling impression of a particular event clashes with general knowledge, the impression commonly prevails. And this goes for you, too. The confidence you will experience in your future judgments will not be diminished by what you just read, even if you believe every word.”

“You should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about…”

“Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness. True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone; chess players find a strong move in a single glance at a complex position; and true legends of instant diagnoses are common among physicians.” 

And my favorite: “…men act on their useless ideas significantly more often than women do, and…as a result women achieve better investment results than men.”

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Can you really measure social transformation?

How can you assess the impact of a child sponsorship program? Is giving a community clean water or mosquito nets more effective? When we say we want to end poverty, how will we measure it?

A new breed of development economists are starting to use research and statistical practices from the medical world to measure our efforts in development and humanitarian projects. As a guy who likes more than anecdotes and case studies, I like it. As a person who wants to be a good steward of their donations, I like it. As someone who lived overseas and struggled to find unbiased info and get clarity, I like it.

I'm reminded of one of my favorite books from the last five years, Better, by an Indian-origin surgeon named Atul Gawande. His basic premise was: please please please, measure something! If we want to improve and use our short lives wisely, try to benchmark things.

A magazine article "Cost Effective Compassion" by a US economist I read last night takes this one step further. Using randomized controlled trials of people both inside and outside relief and development programs, he's learned to more accurately assess progress. Good stuff. And while child sponsorships still make economic sense for long-term development, I was interested to note the huge cost-benefit ratio of drilling water wells, de-worming, mosquito nets, and clean-burning stoves (in order of most effective to lesser). Unfortunately, giving laptops and animals, or drinking fair-trade coffee are things that make us feel good, but have a small impact.

Of course, all this is centered around culture: when you give the survey or ask the questions, will they understand what you mean?

UPDATE: I’ve since heard that some good books on the topic include “Poor Economics” by Banerjee and Duflo and “More Than Good Intentions” by Karlan and Appel. Behavioral economics has been popularized by the "Freakonomics" books as well.